Today, there are an abundance of books out there which address social issues. This is another, and this is an exceptional entrance into the milieu. The hardships of life on a farm, coupled with the abuse of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, especially blacks, who were kept illiterate, treated as less than human, are dealt with deftly, honestly and without undue emotion, so that it is not oppressive to read just eye-opening. The reader is offered an almost intuitive look into life in the days before the civil rights movement accomplished any of its goals and it is ugly. I wanted to scream out loud, many times, when reading this book, not because any of it was overdone or untrue but because no matter how many times one reads about these things, in non-fiction or fiction form, the enormity of the cruelty and its acceptance, is totally absent of reason, led purely by hate and ignorance and this hate and ignorance comes from, not the uneducated alone, but from those most educated, as well. The blind eye that is turned away is what causes my reaction. How, I will never cease to wonder, did such a practice exist, of treating people like property that could be disposed of at will, like inanimate objects devoid of the same physical and mental pain experienced by those who felt so superior? How could someone fight for the idea of freedom in one instance, i.e., as a soldier, and yet not see that he, himself, is guilty of taking away that freedom from someone else, in his own life.
The experience of Jews in Europe, during the war and in America, is also touched on briefly, without being excessive, which further adds to this picture of the cruelty that human beings are ultimately capable of, especially if that abhorrent behavior continues to be accepted or ignored by those who know better. Evil can only exist as long as good people allow it. This is one of the rare books I have read, recently, that portrays Jews, kindly, albeit almost "momentarily", but that moment is so meaningful. The plight of women, blacks and Jews, in the middle of the 20th century, is exposed and although it is not cloying, just reading about it, exposes it like an open wound.
At just a bit more than half way through the book, I discovered it was much more than a novel because the underlying message had huge moral and ethical implications about justice and injustice and those who hold the power to grant both. In some situations, cruelty is the accepted mode of behavior, as in war, and therein lies a real conflict exposed in this book. I believe it makes you question actions and motives and makes you understand that circumstances create the setting, and the scenes of our lives are acted out accordingly. Actions deemed necessary and heroic in one situation, are in others deemed heinous and cruel. It is the environment, in which the scene is acted out, that determines its emotional and moral impact.
This book is about relationships The characters are all very well developed, even the minor ones, and you will experience their emotions and see them in your mind's eye as they contend with the conflicts in their lives, sometimes with success and sometimes with failure, but always described in a way that places you there, with them, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, liking or disliking them according to their behavior and character. Laura, a bright but not assertive young woman, was on her way to being a spinster when she meets her future husband, Henry. Her family is relieved that she has found a husband and willingly bids her adieu. Henry is a man who seems sophisticated and worldly, although he also has shares some of the less than finest qualities of his father. He harbors a secret love for the land and farming. The qualities he appreciates in his wife occasionally cause behavior which surprises him and which is direct contention with the qualities he believes an obedient wife should possess. Henry’s father is one of those people you are sorry you have met. His behavior is often hateful. He is crude and condescending. His opinion of women is less than stellar, as is his opinion of several other major issues. Henry’s sisters feel superior to Laura and let her know it. His brother, Jamie, is on the surface, a popular, confident young man who eventually goes off to fight in the war. He treats Lotte kindly and with respect and makes a positive impression upon her. Ronsel, the son of Hap and Florence is also a magnet for people. He is liked by those who meet them and as his mom puts it, “he has a shine to him.” Unlike his father, he does not accept his “place”. He has fought for America and has been treated with respect in other countries. He knows what dignity feels like and he, justly, wants to retain that feeling. Florence is a strong character, while Hap is a man of dignity and strength, which he often has to hide. He understands the times and the need for obliging behavior, for acting the part in front of those who wield the power and own the land.
All of the characters are flawed and in their interactions, you discover them. Within them lives goodness and evil, strength and weakness, side by side, and sometimes it is hard to understand how the wrong emotion wins out and cowardice reigns, inspiring despicable behavior. Some characters are hateful and they are, at times, the ones with the most power. Weakness and strength resides in all of these characters. Which wins out is often the key to the puzzle about why evil even exists. Power is often abused and in this book “the onion” is peeled back and exposed for what it is. You will view a period of history which was dark and unforgivable.